The city is cold. This is not a statement on weather here. Even on weather’s count, cold season of cities in lower latitudes is Oslo’s summer. It manages to keep an attractive and highly refined façade of affluence and lifestyle that unfurls into layers of nuances only on repeat visits. Parts of the city that face the world arriving at its fjord doorstep, and parts of the city that visitors’ see are those that lead to a compelling desire in them to imagine a comfortable and secure life far from the brokenness of the known cities of the world. Irrespective of a visitor’s own city of residence – New York, Mumbai, Cape Town, Shanghai or any other; Oslo’s sense of orderliness and ideal setting that grips most people. The trams work like a bug free program. The shiny red buses arrive on time. The train system, NSB and its state of the art airport train, Flytoget; can be planned up to the last minute and connect seamlessly to flight departures. This near overlap of intent, plan and actual events cast a spell on the visitor. Then the warmth of harbour side cafes and restaurants, town hall’s ringing bell and Oslo residents walking brisk in their sharp clothing are a sight which is hard to find fault with. All this set under a clean, crisp air on most days and as clean outdoors as the world can offer today, in highly urbanised settings. In one evening of arrival, all of these stir up a longing to live in such a city. On and on, I have seen visitors go weak on their love for hometowns, having experienced half a day’s clockwork in this half a metropolitan high up in north of the world.
Most leave within days and without staying long enough to see their impressions get dented, on the ferries and planes they arrived on, bound by their itinerary’s timeliness. The prices of the city on the first night, second and the third are a matter of choosing cheaper over expensive, or vice-versa. It is only when the stays expand to a week or longer, do explanations roll in, for scenes lodged in the visitor’s tourist eye. Food prices follows close. More than a couple of meals in restaurants can make even the most loaded traveller beat a hasty retreat. But, enough of the prices. The whole city deals with it. Some fix meals out of the cheapest food from its convenience stores. Some struggle. One doesn’t know how many perish in this attempt.
There is struggle in Oslo just as other cities of the world. The only difference is that it is cloaked. When this struggle – of poor residents, immigrants and homeless people – reveals itself through the very few cracks that the city allows for, the details of it can be a crushing read. The contrast is also striking. The residents of Oslo love to keep to themselves. Sharing is an idea that perhaps means sharing public spaces and transport. Beyond that, one stays quiet and avert eyes from all visual discomfort that the resident might get waylaid with.
A suitable place to watch people and their situations unfold is Oslo Sentral. This the point of arrival in Oslo for all, except those arriving by the ferry. This is also the place where the racial, social and economic diversity of this city-town decants. I watch the pleas unfold here, on some evenings. This is where a visitor is likely to find homeless people begging for alms and hustlers trying to get by their days in this expensive city. The space around Oslo S is perhaps the most fascinating spot. Along the walls of tram stops and bus stops one gets a glimpse of a struggling bunch of people. Those resigned hold up placards asking for money in the name of their god, which is interesting when one knows that church attendance in this country has hit rock bottom. The young print out their intents and pleas for work – “Hate Cleaning? I love it!”, announces one. The self-advertising ad ends with a pitch, that the person can make “your home more beautiful. :).” In my time here, these are the little instances which speak of a hard life for those who have come in search of work and life. It seems as though the city ignores them and with this indifference, frustrate them into checking out. Only the Roma faces seem familiar year on year, and the juggler – a talkative and sassy young man of African descent, who puts up shows on juggling six basketballs, on Karl Johan’s street. Watching his show on the street is a practice in confidence building. He talks, calls out and heckles those standing by, as though he has resolved to go back home that evening making that exact amount of money that he set out thinking of. I stay away from him, lest he calls out in my direction and asks me for a 10 kroner tip. This would make a substantial sum to be given away in Indian Rupees for a street performance, which Indians have taken for granted and deem as close to natural phenomenon in everyday life.
Meanwhile, the cyclists of a food delivery company make rounds around town. Young men and women, in good shape riding cycle through the streets of Oslo with a big box of a bag strapped on their shoulders. I am keen on knowing them. Who are they and did anyone of them get here after pasting self-advertising printouts of their cleaning skills on the tram stop walls for years? What intrigues is that Oslo residents do not talk about any of these kinds of work and workers. When the academicians at Norwegian universities do think of workers and their conditions, they make way to the southern hemisphere mostly, and speak of informal labour. In the meantime, informal work trickles into Norway’s daily life, wetting their boots, as they keep themselves busy studying the world.